ON SUNDAY, hundreds of workers from Gate Gourmet, who were locked out and sacked by the company on August 10, 2005, are marching with their supporters through Southall, west London, to mark the anniversary of the beginning of their historic struggle.
The determined struggle of these workers to fight against cheap labour and win reinstatement has inspired the support of thousands of members in the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) and throughout the trade union movement.
A year ago, Gate Gourmet, owned by the multinational venture capitalists, Texas Pacific, sacked about 800 workers at their Heathrow Airport plant, in an operation planned in advance to bring in agency cheap labour to do their jobs.
The morning shift, in the face of this provocation, went to a meeting and were locked in the canteen for seven hours. They were summarily dismissed by loudhailers and were sacked that evening, along with the afternoon shift and those absent on holiday, or through sickness.
On hearing of the sackings, fellow T&G members, baggage handlers and others employed by British Airways, went on strike to support the Gate Gourmet workers, bringing the airline’s flights to a standstill.
This act of industrial solidarity had a devastating effect on Gate Gourmet’s main customer, BA, wiping £50m off shares and creating conditions where the airline giant was demanding that the catering company get things back to normal, something that could only be achieved by reinstating the workforce.
At this point, the T&G leadership, headed by General Secretary Tony Woodley, came to the aid of Gate Gourmet and delivered a blow against their own members by issuing a letter ‘repudiating’ the strike at BA and they got the strike called off.
Gate Gourmet workers found that they were fighting a battle on two fronts, against rapacious capitalists and their own union leadership, who had scuppered their most effective support, strike action at Heathrow.
To cover up this act of treachery, Woodley and T&G official Brendan Gold, declared that Gate Gourmet must immediately reinstate the locked out workers before they would negotiate with the company over its ‘survival plan’.
This militant rhetoric reached a crescendo at the TUC conference in September, when 250 of the Gate Gourmet workers descended on the conference demanding the assembled union leaders win back their jobs. Woodley told the conference he would do everything possible, within the law, to win their struggle.
Behind the scenes the reality was very different. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber and Gold signed a sell-out ‘Compromise Agreement’ with Gate Gourmet management.
Gate Gourmet workers were asked to sign this deal which demanded 140 compulsory redundancies, several hundred voluntary redundancies, took away their right to take the company to court over wrongful dismissal and demanded they agree not to seek jobs with any company associated with Gate Gourmet. Those who were to be re-employed would only get jobs on new terms and conditions.
Everyone had to sign this agreement before anyone would receive compensation. But the vast majority of sacked workers – at least 600 – refused to sign this deal and rejected the position of their trade union leaders. They did this in the face of threats and coercion from union officials to make them sign.
They are now proceeding to take their cases to an employment tribunal and these will be heard in November.
The sacked Gate Gourmet workers are taking their struggle onto the streets of Southall. They are demanding that the T&G makes their dispute official, restores their hardship pay and makes good the pledges, made in August 2005, that the trade union movement will take action to get their jobs back, when they win their tribunal cases.
They are also showing that this historic struggle against a multinational employer, that sacked them on the spot, requires a new leadership in the T&G and the whole trade union movement.
The union leaders have acted as the unpaid servants of the company’s human resources department, calling off the strike at Heathrow, and using every trick in the book to get these workers to just go away. That is why leaders like Woodley and Barber have to be kicked out.
The determined Gate Gourmet workers are leading the way in building a new leadership in the unions to fight against cheap labour, and to defend jobs and trade union rights.
Join them on Sunday and let’s go forward to beat these ruthless bosses, like Gate Gourmet, and rotten trade union leaders, like Woodley.